Real Shopping: Style Police - Look, no hands

This season's bags leave your hands free but they're not without their problems. JAMES SHERWOOD explains how to avoid an ungainly hunt for your keys

Have you heard the one about the hands-free handbag? You must have seen them on the streets by now: multi-zipped, flapped and layered contraptions attached by zip or Velcro strip. The fabrics for these strap- on pouches are very Saving Private Ryan - canvas, nylon or camouflage- green suede. At Miu Miu, the new body bag fits like a bullet-proof vest right round the torso, or straps, tight as a blood pressure test, around the upper arm. At Helmut Lang, it hangs like a jumbo pocket from the hip. At Prada, it sits, papoose-style, on the back of a belt.

The problem comes when you try to find your car keys. Grown women furiously zip, burrow and contort in an effort to locate said essential. Perhaps the idea is to fill your body bag with easy access essentials, leaving your hands free to hail cabs, light a ciggy or slap small children. But the minute you insert anything bulkier than a credit card, it simply ruins the line. And what's the point of slipping into a delicate violet John Smedley knit sweater only to strap a thick piece of sludge-coloured canvas over it?

Unless you are a dedicated foot soldier of the urban guerrilla army, which lives and dies in canvas combat pants, the utility body bag will look as bizarre as a bullet belt. Even prettied-up, you can't get away from its innate impracticality. Louis Vuitton's pink patent leather purse pouch wouldn't take more than a lipstick, compact and Amex card. His baby-blue leather rucksack is more accommodating, but offers the light- fingered fraternity a pick and mix of its contents.

How to wear it

There is a solution that nods to the trend without morphing the handbag into a body part - the common-or-garden shoulder-bag shape, slung across the body and sitting on the hip. The hip-holster bag makes sense. It's big enough to accommodate the bare essentials; it leaves hands free; and it hangs neatly by your side like a dependent puppy.

This season, Marni made the prototype in bright yellow embroidered silk. As Vogue editor Diana Vreeland used to say: "That's the look, dear". It is a step on from the black nylon Prada version we've all been buying from street pedlars in Milan for pounds 15 a throw. It is totally on-message with the colour, the craft-work decoration and the simple lines of this season.

Where to buy it

Of course, there are heaps of pretty reticules dripping in beads but the high street still thinks decoration is for evening bags only. Come on guys, catch up. Style Police rules apply.

Go to source and see if you can afford the real thing. Zip over to Harrods and have a look at the best collection of Marni bags (from pounds 149). It's up to your conscience and your bank manager from there.

If you want pretty/practical, Joseph makes the hip-holster bag in cappuccino suede with pretty punched hem detail (pounds 159) and Dollargrand has taken the look into pearlised white leather (pounds 110). If you're not ready for full-on embroidery and can't bear to move on from "utility chic" fabrics, then forget high designer labels. After all, nylon is nylon: right?

The hip-holster bag was born at London label Maharishi and is still living it large in its current collection. The Maharishi hip-holster is hottest in bright white nylon from Browns Focus for pounds 65.

Of course, if you're in the vicinity of the Via della Spiga, do haggle with one of the charming street vendors for the pounds 15 Prada rip-off.

Alternatively, hurry on down to Debenhams. You already know about the Designers at Debenhams. Well, the designer you need this time is John Richmond, and the bag is black nylon and costs pounds 30.

ADDRESS BOOK

Browns Focus: 0171 629 0666.

Debenhams: 0171 408 4444.

Dollargrand: 0171 794 3028.

Joseph: 0171 823 9500.

Marni at Harrods: 0171 730 1234.

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